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Verlander no longer ace in waiting

Verlander no longer ace in waiting

Justin Verlander has always tried to soak in the Opening Day atmosphere around Comerica Park. He'll be a little too busy for that this year.

While the crowd will be trying to stay warm at Comerica Park on Monday, Verlander will be warming up.

"Maybe I'll get out there a couple minutes early," he said of his first career Opening Day assignment.

He could afford to take a minute and enjoy it. The way his career has been going, he has gone from fresh-faced kid to staff ace in a blur.

The numbers alone are impressive. Only Boston's Josh Beckett and the Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang have more wins among Major League pitchers over the past two years than Verlander, who has racked up 35 victories in his first two full big league seasons. Nobody has won more games in their first two full big league campaigns since Dwight Gooden won 41 in 1984-85.

On a staff that has pitchers with something to prove, from Kenny Rogers defying age to Dontrelle Willis jumping to the American League to Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson taking the next steps in their careers, Verlander is the one Tigers starter who seems closest to a sure thing.

His no-hitter last summer seemed to answer the question of if he could dominate an outing. His ability to spot his curveball and mix in his changeup showed he could throw three pitches for strikes at any point. By going 5-1 with a 2.72 ERA over his final seven starts in '07, Verlander answered concerns over whether he could hold up for a full season.

When noted baseball analyst -- and senior baseball operations advisor for the Red Sox -- Bill James came out with his list of the top 25 players under age 30, Verlander ranked 15th, just a couple spots behind Tigers superstar slugger Miguel Cabrera. Verlander has the foundation for what could be a spectacular career that could eventually land him in the Hall of Fame. Now he's trying to build on it.

"I think there's always something to prove," Verlander said earlier this spring. "I think I'm handling it better, though. I'm never going to be content, no matter what happens. That's just my personality."

He has very little to prove against the Royals. His 6-0 record in eight career starts against Kansas City includes his first shutout -- back in 2006 -- a meager .209 batting average allowed and just two home runs surrendered over 51 2/3 innings.

Perhaps the only thing left for him to show is that he can hold them down in cold weather. Detroit's forecast high in the low 40s for Monday could mean plenty of inside fastballs to jam hitters and their numb hands.

Verlander, for one, doesn't expect to be bothered by it.

"I pitched games at [Old Dominion] where I remember pitching in snow," he said. "We had a a little laundry room [in the clubhouse], and before I'd go out, I'd put a towel in the dryer and turn it on. I'd sit in there for two outs and have someone come get me. It would warm up the whole room. It would be, like, 18 degrees outside and it would be 85 in the laundry room."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["opening_day" ] }
{"content":["opening_day" ] }